x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Fashion conscience: handbags that help Palestinian women survive in the camps

Zeina Abou-Chaaban, brand manager of Magnet Fashions in Dubai, explains the new bag collection sourced through its Palestinian outreach organisation, Palestyle.

Zeina Abou-Chaaban with some of the Palestyle designs, whose sale give Palestinian women in refugee camps an income.
Zeina Abou-Chaaban with some of the Palestyle designs, whose sale give Palestinian women in refugee camps an income.

Zeina Abou-Chaaban is sitting in front of a pink podium upon which are arranged several brightly coloured leather clutch bags and wallets - patent reds and purples among them. It is the kind of shiny shop arrangement you can't wander past without running tempted fingers over it, perhaps picking one or two items up. "These are part of the new collection, the glam accessories, first launched in Palestine a few months ago and they've been doing very well since," explains Abou-Chaaban from her seat at the Emirates Tower's branch of Ounass in which they've just been laid out.

Abou-Chaaban is brand manager of Magnet Fashions, the Dubai-based fashion group that is responsible for the new bag collection through its Palestinian outreach organisation, Palestyle. An idea of Abou-Chaaban's that germinated in 2007, Palestyle was set up last year and operates under the dictum "fashion for a social cause". At its core are approximately 40 Palestinian women, who work from refugee camps primarily in Jordan with a few in Lebanon too. "Fashion is very commercialised but it has social value to it too," explains Abou-Chaaban of the company's ethos.

Having started commercial life with a stall at the JBR weekend market, its wares have now been picked up not only by Ounass but Bloomingdale's and Salam stores as well. The women who work for Palestyle are chiefly embroiderers, making the scarves and shawls, which are now to be found in Salam stores, starting at Dh150. "The idea is empowerment first by giving them a sense of purpose by spreading their embroidery work and then by giving them an income for their work and a percentage of revenue raised from all other items," says Abou-Chaaban, who stresses that the support isn't just significant financially, but morally and emotionally too.

She picks at her own cream and red Palestyle headscarf, and briefly explains the legacy of Palestinian embroidery. "It goes back a long time. Basically, the nice thing is it tells the story of the social and geographical landscape of Palestine. "Each pattern tells where the woman is from. Blue would mean she was unmarried, red that she was married. The richness of the fabric shows wealth, the shapes convey meaning." Triangles were used to ward off the "evil eye", she says, and the European influence in the 1930s meant that floral patterns crept in.

The embroidered pieces come from workshops in the refugee camps where they're made under the supervision of an overseer. But most Palestyle embroiderers come with at least some background in the craft. Ideally, it is something a small girl learns from her mother, says Abou-Chaaban, "But there's lots of fading away of these arts so we need to encourage these women to keep their heritage." Heritage is a cornerstone of the entire operation. She points out the pieces going into Ounass as an example. Designed and made in Jordan and Lebanon, the bags close with clasps covered in Arabic phrases and the gold-plated necklaces are inspired by Arabic calligraphy. "To reflect the warm Arabic culture," says Abou-Chababan.

And although the clutch bags and wallets are not made by the Palestyle refugee workers themselves, the embroiderers are partially funded by their sale - with five per cent of their proceeds channelled back to them. "Each one has a personal message to make each woman feel special," she says of the wallets and bags. "This one says 'The secret of your beauty', this says 'Charming as the moon', this 'The magic of your eyes'," she says, translating. Laid out in bright pinks and purples, and decorated with Swarovski crystals, and retailing for between Dh450 and Dh850, it's not hard to picture them decorating the tables at Dubai's hottest clubs.

Nearby sits a small table on which are laid out a handful of calligraphic necklaces, another part of the Palestyle "glam accessories" collection. Abou-Chaaban herself is wearing a large gold-plated "Z", which looks something like a Roman "j". They're striking statement pieces, again they are not made in the refugee camps but a percentage of the profit is returned to the women who work for Palestyle.

The plan, says Abou-Chaaban, is to concentrate on growth within the stores now carrying Palestyle pieces and supporting their efforts, rather than for the business to strike out on its own. "Growth will add value to the brand," she says, "and to the women themselves." ? Palestyle clutch-bags, wallets and necklaces can be found in Ounass and Bloomingdale's. The shawls and scarves can be found in Salam stores.